Friday , July 19 2024

Drowsiness, long-haul truck drivers’ deadly enemy


Container truck driver Le Van Khoa put three handfuls of dried tea in a thermos container after dinner and began a transsouth-north trip.

Leaving Trang Bom District in the southern Dong Nai province at 9pm one day in early February, his truck carrying bananas went along National Highway 1A to the Huu Nghi Border Gate in Lang Son province.

Khoa, who has been a container truck driver for five years, said: “Opening the truck door is like facing death.”

He drives a long refrigerated container truck weighing 30-40 tons, which requires the driver to be at least 24 years old.

The schedule must be strictly adhered to so that the goods reach in time, failing which they, especially fresh fruits, could perish.

“To cover the distance of some 2,000 km, refrigerated container trucks take around 50 hours, and other trucks take 45-48 hours,” Khoa said.

Container trucks go slowly in the daytime but at high speed at night when roads are deserted, and so are sometimes called “highway killers.”

“The biggest and most dangerous enemy for drivers is sleepiness,” Khoa said. So coffee, energy drinks and strong tea are indispensable in cabins.

“I take a sip of tea every now and then,” the 36-year-old said, referring to the best way to remain awake.

But despite this he felt sleepy every two hours and so turned on lively music and sometimes splashed water on his face.

After three hours of driving he parked his truck at a restaurant and slept for three hours before resuming.

“The south – north journey takes two days and two nights. We get total sleep time of around six hours.”

At first, unable to adapt to the intensity of the job, Khoa used to be constantly tired, even exhausted. After drinking strong tea, he would feel dizzy and move like a drunk man. But now he has gotten used to the nature of the work as well as the bitter tea.

He said many drivers resort to using drugs to keep them awake and focused during a long drive. He does not use drugs or even drink alcohol for two days before a trip, the father of two said.

“I do this job for a living. If I have to resort to drugs when driving, I’d rather quit.”

At around 3pm one day in early March Dang Sam, who was driving a 29-seat passenger vehicle from Hoang Muoi Temple in the central province of Nghe An to the northern province of Bac Giang, felt sleepiness wash over him.

During the festival season he runs trips non-stop without resting.

He asked a sleeping passenger to open a can of energy drink for him. He drank it quickly to try and dispel his sleepiness and turned on some loud lively music.

About an hour later he yawned prodigiously again. He knew what he had to do.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to sleep for 15 minutes,” he said and pulled over to the side of the road.

The engine was running, the air conditioner was on and he slept like a log.

He says: “I planned to take a nap for 15 minutes, but people just let me sleep. When I woke up, I had slept for more than an hour.”

He has been driving passenger vans and buses for 14 years, and says drowsiness is a driver’s most dangerous enemy.

While driving, he drinks energy drinks more than water. “Without energy drinks, I can’t drive,” he says.

He spends VND1 million (U$42.4) a month on average on buying them, but does not drink tea or alcohol.

Statistics from the National Traffic Safety Committee show there were 11,457 road accidents last year, 30-40% of them thought to be caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

The Law on Road Traffic stipulates that drivers should not work more than 10 hours a day or drive continuously for more than four hours. Violators could be fined VND3-5 million and have their driving license suspended for up to three months.

The U.S.’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says drowsiness is the cause of at least 100,000 vehicle crashes and 6,400 deaths a year. But a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated that number to be as high as 328,000.

The country has stringent regulations: cargo drivers are allowed to drive for up to 11 hours after 10 uninterrupted hours of rest, while passenger vehicle drivers are allowed to drive for 10 hours after an eight-hour break.

Scientific studies show that sleepiness has a similar effect on alertness and concentration as alcohol. Driving after 20 hours without sleep is equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%.

According to the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of California in the U.S., if the body lacks sleep, at some point the brain will force it to stop working.

If a driver nods off for just four or five seconds while driving on a highway, the vehicle will cover the length of a football field.

“It is real that you close your eyes and see death,” Do Hong Minh, 55, of Hanoi’s Gia Lam District, a truck driver for nearly 30 years, says.

He too says the main problem is sleepiness due to having to drive continuously without resting to deliver goods in time.

“While driving, there are billions of possible situations. A driver can be excellent, but there are many types of people on the road, so it is imperative to always pay attention.”

He says he has escaped death by a hair’s breadth a number of times, twice due to his own fault.

In the summer of 1998 he was carrying a consignment of litchi from Bac Giang Province to Lao Cai on the northern border.

Driving at around midnight on Highway 70 in Luc Yen District in Yen Bai Province, he was speeding along since the goods’ owner had asked him to deliver the fruits early.

Since he had drunk coffee and strong tea to combat drowsiness, his eyes remained open but he was unable to control the wheel.

“I crashed into a cone on the road. Fortunately, I braked in time or else the truck would have plunged over the cliff.”

One afternoon 15 years ago he and some friends drank alcohol and planned to rest after that. But a customer in Hanoi asked him to transport cargo to the northern province of Nam Dinh, and Minh accepted the order.

On Hang Bong Street in Hanoi, drowsy from the alcohol, he almost crashed his van into vehicles in front several times.

At the intersection of Cua Nam, hearing a very loud noise, he braked and rushed down into the road to see a man fallen right in front of his vehicle.

“Thank God I braked in time, otherwise I would have run right over the man. I decided then I have to stop and sleep when I’m sleepy.”

Le Trong Nghia, director of a passenger transport company in the northern province of Quang Ninh, says when he was driving in the 1990s, it was common for drivers to use alcohol while in 2000-10 many drivers used drugs.

In recent years infrastructure has improved a lot, as has awareness among road users, but some drivers are not serious about their career, he bemoans. “50% of traffic accidents is because of drivers’ fault, 20% is due to unsafe vehicles.”

In 2018 Minh founded the Vehicle Culture Forum, which now has some 20,000 members.

It serves as a forum to share experiences and knowledge of safe driving to minimize accidents.

Sam, who depended for years on energy drinks to stay awake at the wheel, thinks that is also the reason why he never had an appetite and remained thin.

In recent years he has been drinking energy drinks less and instead asks passengers for permission to stop his vehicle.

As for Khoa, tired of the stress of doing long trips alone, recently switched to driving a normal container truck where two drivers take turns.

“There is a break after every four hours of driving, and the pressure is gone,” he says.

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